Keeping Up With the War God

Motorcycle helmets, makeshift shields and fireproof clothing: We looked like ragtag riot police ready for the worst.

Just after sundown thousands of us massed in one of Yenshui's narrow streets, and encircled the scaffold frame that stood in the center of the road. Two men scurried around the structure, which was the size of a cargo container, and covered with large sheets of red paper. The technicians completed their checks, then tore off the coverings to reveal mortar-sized launch tubes and racks full of smaller rockets. The platform bristled with fireworks pointed in every direction -- at the sky, at nearby houses, and, as I had been warned, at the crowd.

I heard a whistle behind me and moved quickly to one side. Stewards carved a pathway through the horde so that a wood-and-metal sedan chair could be put in position. Eight men, all dressed in the same protective fashion as the onlookers, carried it forward and set it down a few yards before the fireworks platform. This palanquin contained a colorfully attired wooden effigy the size of a large doll -- a god on an inspection tour of his worldly domain. Pyrotechnicians, stewards and bearers signaled to one another. Sheaves of golden paper -- currency for the god to use in the supernatural world -- were scattered across the tarmac and set alight. The eight bearers then hoist the litter, and rocked it back and forth over the flames.

Most of the crowd took a few steps back. The burble of conversation died. A few seconds later the top of the frame erupted with a thunderous roar. For half a minute, the volcanic spew was of such intensity that skyward rockets created a broad, dazzling column of light. There was a brief moment of respite as the vertical fusillade waned, but then the horizontal launch tubes and racks beginning to empty themselves. People took cover behind strangers; the tall stooped. Fireworks shot like tracer bullets over my head: One glanced off my helmet's visor. The angle of fire sank lower and lower until fizzing rockets were skidding off the road surface and striking my shins.

As soon as the bombardment ended, people dispersed and searched for their friends. Strangers traded V-for-victory signs; some took off their helmets and began chatting like a cinema audience after the movie. No one wanted to lose track of the War God; soon we were following him to another part of town, where a fresh arsenal was being readied.

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